You shall go out with joy

Image copyright Stephen Craven 2018

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “You shall go out with joy”.  When I saw the title I thought I knew it, but this is not the popular 1980s chorus of the same title, rather  a more traditional style hymn based on the same passage in Isaiah 55:10-13.  The author is N.T. Wright, best known as a former Bishop of Durham and writer of Bible commentaries.  This is the first hymn I have come across attributed to him.

The structure is slightly unusual. Each of the four verses consists of six lines, the first four being taken from Isaiah’s prophecy, and the last two being statements of Christian faith related to Easter. 

The first two verses with their anthropomorphic image of the mountains and hills singing and the trees clapping (i.e. the whole creation praising God) are paired with statements that Jesus’ love has conquered death and that he lives to heal and save – a fact certainly worthy of praise.   The third takes the image of God’s word refreshing like rain or snow and (by way of the conventional title of Jesus as Word of God) links with the risen Word giving life to all. The last verse take the image of replacing briars and thorns with myrtle and cypress (attractive and sweet smelling trees) and concludes with Jesus’ titles of himself as the way, the truth and the life – an attractive and pleasing way of life no doubt, but the original context (as Wright must know) was in a call for people to turn to God for their sins to be pardoned.

With respect to the Bishop I am not convinced by these particular pairings, which seem rather contrived in the manner of “the holly and the ivy”. Whilst many passages in Isaiah are generally accepted as prophecies of the Messiah (Christ), the Isaiah passage is titled (in the New Revised Standard Version) as “An invitation to abundant life”, but is not one of the so-called Servant Songs. The couplets expressing Christian faith that conclude each verse are perfectly orthodox, but cannot be deduced directly or (as far as I can see) indirectly from the words that precede them.  It’s good poetry, and sound theology, but the two sets of statements don’t really belong together.

Jesus is risen, Alleluia!

Christians in Ihimbo, Tanzania
From the website of St Stephen’s Lutheran Church, WSP

There are no doubt several hymns or worship songs with this title, but the one I have chosen today from Sing Praise is John Bell’s translation of a Tanzanian song of praise. I love the simple and easily learnt melodies and harmonies of East African songs, coming from a part of the world where communal singing is still an essential part of life in a way that has been lost in most ‘developed’ countries.

African Christians also seem to have a joy in their faith that we have lost in an over-cautious and over-intellectualised Western religion. From the start, this hymn is full of the confidence and joy of the first Christians that Jesus is alive and worthy of praise. Just listen to some of the phrases in this song: “Come let us worship him, endlessly sing!”; “Blest are the hearts which for him rejoice”; “Go and tell others, Christ is alive”; “Let heaven echo, let the earth sing: Jesus is saviour of everything”; and the final line, “Therefore rejoice, obey and believe”. This hymn will truly send me into the day rejoicing.

Today I awake and God is before me

Raindrops and chapel. Copyright Stephen Craven 2005.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Today I awake and God is before me”. It comes with its own tune written by the composer, John Bell, but I first came across it to the tune better known to the words “Morning has broken”.  Like that one, it is a “morning hymn” rather than specifically an Easter one, but in the Easter season we are reminded that Christ’s resurrection revealed at daybreak on Easter day was as a new morning for the world. In form, the hymn is Trinitarian – one verse each referring to the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit and one to the Trinity (three persons, one God). 

Equally important, I would say, are the verbs used at the start of each verse: I awake, I arise, I affirm, I enjoy.  Everyone goes to bed expecting to awake in the morning, though knowing that one day we will not. Nearly everyone (except for those afflicted by disease or disability) is able to arise.  But to affirm and enjoy the new day is a matter of the will.  in verse 1, we sing “God never sleeps but patterns the morning in slithers of gold or glory in grey”.  I have illustrated this post with a photo taken in 2005 when I was on a photographic holiday retreat at Scargill House, in wet and grey weather unsuitable for outdoor colour photography.  We sang this hymn and were encouraged to take monochrome and indoor photos instead. This one shows the chapel – representing the praise of God – beyond the raindrops in the foreground.

While come people’s circumstances make it easier to do so, it is the ability to thank God even for the “glories of a grey day” that perhaps makes the difference between those who find cause to grumble right from the start of the day even when there is much to give thanks for, and those who manage to find good things in life around them, however challenging their circumstances. The singing of a hymn of praise at the start of the day is a good way to get into the right mood.

In verse 2 we sing of Christ who “walked through the dark to scatter new light”.  He did that on earth, bringing hope to the sick and sinful, but supremely in death and resurrection. “Yes, Christ is alive, and beckons his people to hope and to heal, resist and invite”.  It is that hope in the one who brings new life in the most hopeless circumstances that allows us to enter each new day joyfully.

Verse 3 affirms the work of the Holy Spirit, while in verse 4 we “enjoy” God’s presence in any way, who “called me to life and called me their friend”.  I would just query here the use of the plural “they/their”, which I doubt is intended to reflect current usage by transgender or non-binary people.  It may just be to avoid gendering God as ‘he’ (John Bell has written other hymns that address the Spirit, at least, as ‘she’) but seems to go against the traditional Christian understanding that the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity are one God.

If Christ had not been raised…

Today’s hymn choice from Sing Praise is “If Christ had not been raised from death” by Christopher Idle, which can be sung to either of the tunes to the older hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say”.  It is based on 1 Corinthians chapter 15 and the three verses all start with “If…”, changing in the second half of the verse to “But…”.   This “if/but” language makes clear the distinctions between those who have faith in Christ and those who don’t.

In verse 1, “If Christ had not been raised” (in which case all religious activity is meaningless) is countered with “but now the Lord is risen indeed” (the common Easter acclamation) which means that “in Christ we are forgiven”.  In verse 2, “If Christ still lay within the tomb” (meaning death is the finality it appears to be) is opposed with “But now the saviour is raised up”. The reality of physical death and separation is acknowledged as it should be, while also believing in a future life: “when a Christian dies we mourn, yet look to God in hope”. Verse 3 starts with “If Christ had not been truly raised”, the implication of which is that all our proclamations of everlasting life are lies. But… “now our great Redeemer lives, through him we are restored”.

These three affirmations of the truth of the Resurrection are shown to lead to forgiveness, a promise of eternal life, and restoration to God’s fellowship in the here-and-now, instead of guilt, death as the end of our being, and separation from God (logically, verse 3 might come before verse 2). That affirmation of relationship is at the core of Christianity, rather than any rules and regulations.

This is the night of new beginnings

Easter Vigil at the church of the Ascension, Oak Park, IL, USA

Today’s hymn choice from Sing Praise is “This is the night of new beginnings” by Bernadette Farrell. The tune and the words of the chorus are the same as her hymn “Longing for light”.  At first I thought the present hymn an adaptation of that one, but see John’s comment below, that this hymn dates from 1990 & 1991, and “Longing for light” is later (1993).

These original words, then, are intended for the Easter vigil. This ceremony is observed by some, but by no means all, church congregations, either at sunset on Easter eve or sunrise on Easter morning depending on local preference).  Neither is ‘wrong’, for who can say at what moment Christ was resurrected between the start of the Sabbath (Friday evening) when the women went home and the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday when they returned?  The emphasis varies with the chosen time: if at sunset, it’s about entering the darkness, the loss of contact with God as Jesus his son has died (while also anticipating the resurrection).  We do need this in our spiritual lives, an acknowledgement that sometimes God seems absent and life seems hopeless, and faith in the resurrection seems a distant hope. 

If the vigil takes place around sunrise, it begins in sombre darkness, often gathered around a fire, but as the day dawns the Easter candle is lit from the fire and carried into church with great shouts of “The light of Christ!” and “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” 

This year, of course, it was all different. At our church at least, the Covid restrictions meant there was no singing other than the Vicar’s wife singing an Easter song quietly outside the church, and a strong wind meant that the Easter candle had to be lit indoors (there was no fire anyway: our service is not at dawn).

But back to the words of the hymn. Both options above seem to be covered: verse 1 speaks of the “night of new beginnings” (a reminder to me of an Easter sermon by the late Revd Val Clarke who described the Christian life lived in the light of the Resurrection as “the land of Begin-Again”). Verse 2 is about the “night Christ our Redeemer rose from the grave triumphant and free”. The middle verse speaks of the fire kindled in darkness to dispel the shadows of night. 

Verse 4, which should probably be marked with an increase in volume and maybe tempo, urges people to “Sing of the hope deeper than dying, sing of the power stronger than death, sing of the love endless as heaven, dawning throughout the earth”. I love those words: it reminds us that the Easter celebration is not for the individual, nor just the local congregation nor even the totality of Christians worldwide, a billion strong though we are.  No, Easter is for the whole of creation to sing praise to our redeeming God.

Finally, as the sun rises perhaps, the last verse proclaims that “into this world morning is breaking” and calls God’s people to “lift up your voice, cry out with joy, tell out the story, all of the earth rejoice!”  

The chorus after each verse is “Christ be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. Christ be our light, shine in your church gathered today”. This is another reminder that we are part of a larger whole.

I will sing the Lord’s high triumph

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “I will sing the Lord’s high triumph” by Christopher Idle, a contemporary adaptation of perhaps one of the oldest known songs of praise, that of Moses and his sister Miriam recorded in Exodus chapter 15.  That song celebrates the freedom of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and the destruction of their Egyptian captors in the ‘Red’ (or reed) sea. It is therefore associated for Christians with Easter, when we celebrate the freedom from sin and destruction of the power of death achieved by Jesus in his death and resurrection.  Perhaps because of that, John chose to sing this to ‘Cwm Rhondda’ a tune equally associated with the hymn ‘Guide me, o my great redeemer’ and its final verse with the words “Death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side”. The first verse of this hymn, in its final couplet, also refers to this: “through the waters God has brought us liberty”.

The second verse recounts God’s power demonstrated ‘in the storm and at the mountain’ (of Horeb, where the Ten Commandments were given in cloud and lightning). The third refers to God guiding us safely to our homeland, which in spiritual terms means heaven, but can also be applied in our earthly lives as God will often call people to move and change, an uncomfortable period in our lives, but with the purpose of bringing us to where we can have a fuller life and one where we can serve him better.  The last verse makes the connection again between God leading the nation through the sea, and the One (Jesus) “whose blood released is from our deeper slavery”.  It finishes with the Easter acclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen: we are free!”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


St Michael & All Angels, Jarvis Brook – Stained glass window
© Copyright John Salmon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Easter Sunday hymn from sing praise is titled, perhaps predictably, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen”, the shout of triumph and joy echoed by millions of Christians around the world today.  This is, though, an unfamiliar hymn to me, written by the American composer Herbert F Brokering. The meters is unusual (9.10.9.10 + 10.9), the hymn book doesn’t offer any alternatives that fit it, and the I found the tune (“Earth and all stars”) a difficult one, even to sing along to a recording found online. 

The hymn is in three verses, and is maybe intended to illustrate three ways in which the resurrection can be understood.  The first is about the cosmic implications: “Trumpets resounding in glorious light! Splendour, the Lamb, heaven forever!” It is a fact not often mentioned that no-one actually witnessed the resurrection happening inside the sealed tomb, so it must remain a matter of faith, perhaps rightly so. Also, it was not just about completing the redemption of humans from sin, but more about starting to put right the decay of all creation that Paul refers to in Romans 8.

The second verse is about Jesus’ first appearance to the women at the tomb. “Weeping, be gone; Sorrow, be silent: death is defeated and Easter is bright. Angels announce, Jesus is risen!’ Clothe us in wonder, adorn us in light”.  It was important for those first witnesses to go and tell what they had experienced, even though they could not make sense of it, but equally important was the transformation of mourning to joy at the sight of Jesus.

The last verse refers to the Emmaus Road story of Easter evening, but is phrased more as explaining the way that we, here and now, can experience the resurrection for ourselves as we learn more about him continue in fellowship with others and share Communion. “Walking the way, Christ walking in us, telling the story to open our eyes; breaking the bread, showing his glory; Jesus our blessing, our constant surprise.”

Cosmic event, immediate appearances to his disciples, and the ongoing transformation of lives through Christian fellowship: these are what we understand as the resurrection of Christ.  Happy Easter to anyone who reads this!

Unless a grain of wheat shall fall

(c) Anthere cc-by-sa 3.0

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is from one of my favourite contemporary hymnwriters, Bernadette Farrell. The form of the hymn is six verses of three short lines and a chorus, the words of which are “Unless a grain of wheat shall fall upon the ground and die, it remains but a single grain with no life”.

“Unless a grain of what shall fall” is based on Jesus’ explanation to his followers that his death was necessary in order that he could rise again in a new and eternal form and send the Holy Spirit, just as a seed has to be buried in the earth in order to sprout and come to life as a new plant.

In different ways, the verses call people to the Christian life, and are balanced to show that Jesus gives as much as he demands. We are called to die, live and eventually reign with Jesus; to serve him and follow him; to make our home in him as he makes his home in us in order to bear much fruit; to remain in him and let his word live in us; to love and be loved; and finally, without any action demanded of us, to accept the peace that he gives which the world cannot give. 

All these sayings are to be found in John’s gospel, and are worthy of reflection as we approach Good Friday and Easter.

Water of Life, Cleanse and refresh us

My choice of song from the Sing Praise book for 22 January. We’re still in the Epiphany season and looking at hymns and songs relating to baptism.

The phrase “water of life” is itself a very common one, not restricted to Christian theology. Even alcoholic spirits are sometimes given the same honour. At its most basic, water is an essential compound for life as we know it to exist at all, and no animal can live long without drinking it (even camels can only go a week or so without water from the plants they eat).

Water is significant in many key passages of the Bible, from the creation stories where God commands the sea not to invade the land, to the symbolic ‘river of life’ flowing out of the heavenly city. Rivers are crossed miraculously, water drawn from the rock with a holy staff, gallons of it turned into wine – and much more. The symbolism in the chorus of this short song is of baptism, where the water that is blessed and poured over the person being baptised symbolises them being cleansed of their sins and filled with the new life of God’s Spirit.

The first chant (as they are intended to be sung solo rather than as verses of a congregational hymn) starts “all you who thirst, come to the waters” and is from Isaiah 55:1, part of a series of prophesies about the reign of peace of the Messiah. When we turn to Jesus we find abundant life in him. The second, “as rain from heaven, so is God’s word, it waters the earth and brings forth life” draws on several Biblical verses rather than a single one, but the metaphor is a striking one – just as the earth will be dry and unproductive in a drought, so people are spiritually dry and unproductive if they are not ‘watered’ by the presence of God

The third chant is not about water but about resurrection, a link that’s often made, for the plunging into the waters and rising up again at baptism (which makes more sense for the ‘full immersion’ of an adult) is a symbol of resurrection from death. Christians believe that not only did Christ get physically resurrected by God, but that in itself is a promise of a new kind of life after death for all of us who have united ourselves with him.

The last chant, which perhaps should be the first, is about repentance, because normally the challenge to repentance comes before the response of being baptised. But equally, being reminded of our baptism is a prompt to note where we have fallen away from following Jesus and turn back to him.

Slower than Butterflies

This post is based on a prayer session that I led today.  The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual.  I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience.  Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds.  You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.

So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.

Small tortoiseshell

This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic.  We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence.   The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)

Ringlet

This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland.  Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away.  That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing.  Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter.  The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than  a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Skipper

This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed.  Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish.  Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

Cabbage White

This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food.  But  we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:1-4)

Speckled Wood

I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard.  The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave.  As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.

Cornish

A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.

May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
            (an anonymous Irish blessing)

Copyright  (c) Stephen Craven 2020.  Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.